The legendary Kirk Douglas turns 100-years-old today and here are two largely unknown anecdotes about the star: One inadvertently connects him to Lee Marvin and the other is quite personal.
First, the Lee Marvin connection. It’s no secret that Kirk Douglas was rightfully nominated for an Oscar several times in his career, never won, and has said publicly how much he would like to have won an Oscar in competition. Well, he came close once and never even knew it! I was fortunate to interview Cat Ballou director Elliott Silverstein while researching Lee Marvin Point Blank in the 1990s. Much of what he told me went into the book but the details concerning how close Kirk Douglas came to playing Lee Marvin’s role did not. Here it is for the first time…
Elliott Silverstein:..So, the company wanted a major star. After meeting, the group [of producers] decided they wanted Kirk Douglas. I said that this was my first movie and I knew that I was going to ask the actor who played the character to do bizarre, dangerous things, chancy dangerous, career dangerous, esthetically dangerous — bold, bizarre things. I didn’t think a star of Douglas’ magnitude would be comfortable doing those, particularly with a first time feature director. Although god knows, I had directed every television show there was. I was concerned that Kirk Douglas, as a major star, would not feel comfortable doing some of the crazy things I was going to ask the actor playing Kid Shelleen to do. In fact, I had not the leverage that I would have liked. I said, “I would like you try to get Lee. You got to try to persuade him.”
Dwayne: Did you have Lee in mind from the beginning?
D: How did you think of Lee?
E: I’m coming to that. They warned me that Douglas didn’t think the role was quite large enough and encouraged me to try to think of some things to make the role larger. I called Douglas. I was a good soldier I think. I did the best I could to persuade him. I told him about some expansions I could make. He said he felt the role was too small for a star’s part and not small enough for a cameo. I went back in and reported that. They said who else have we got? I had been thinking about who else. I remembered The Wild One. Lee Marvin had a wonderful moment where he got off the motorcycle. I just remembered the moment. It was like a gesture you remember somebody had made. So, I said, ‘I’d like Lee Marvin.’ Well, nobody else had any ideas so they said, ‘Okay fine.’ That probably reduced the budget a little bit. It did not make everybody actually happy as they considered it, but nobody had any ideas. We wanted to start in the fall and this was already the end of summer. They approached Lee Marvin and he went crazy for the part. People kept telling me, ‘Oh, he’s going around at parties reciting the speeches from it.’ Things of that nature. The next thing you know…
And the rest, as they say, is history. Don’t get me wrong, there’s no way to ever know for sure if Kirk would have won the Oscar had he played Kid Shelleen, but who knows, right? Wonder if he regrets that as much as he regrets not playing McMurphy in the film version of One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest? The speculation is endless. By the way, if you want to see what he would have been like as McMurphy, since he had played the role on Broadway, check out the underrated, bizarre western, There Was a Crooked Man. A personal favorite of mine and one of the strangest films EVER!
And now, the personal anecdote. Back in 1981, I had read that both Kirk Douglas AND Burt Lancaster were going to appear on stage together as Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer as older men in the 1920s. It wasn’t easy, but I managed to talk my childhood friend, Ty Elliott, into going with me up to San Francisco to see the two legends in the brief run of “The Boys In Autumn.” Why? Because ever since he and I were kids The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was our favorite book and Burt Lancaster was our favorite actor. Who could ask for more!
So, off we went and it was quite an adventure. Truth be told, the play itself was not all that good, making Tom Sawyer (Douglas) a child molester pining over Becky Thatcher and turning Huck Finn (Lancaster) into a mercy killer of his dying wife…yech! The saving grace was seeing these two titans of film in person, with an ending in which they joked playfully while doing a soft shoe routine. Movie fan heaven. (Side note: the play was retooled and went to Broadway with George C. Scott & John Cullum in the leads and not surprisingly, it still flopped!)
After the play, we went over to a Bar & Grille to get drunk and bemoan both the play and the fact that we didn’t get to meet either of the two legends in-person to actually talk to. We were on our umpteenth gin & tonic when who should walk into the crowded establishment to pick up a to-go order? That’s right, the dimpled chin one himself, looking every inch a movie star. He came in like a whirlwind, wearing slacks, a dapper tan trench coat over a ribbed red turtleneck, hair flipping as he walked looking 20 years young than his mid-60s. He sat down in the shadowy corner waiting for his food, while I screwed up my courage. I downed the rest of my drink, gathered my screwed up courage, and took the long jaunt over to where he impatiently sat, hoping not to be bothered by fools such as I. Good thing I was drunk.
I stood in front of him, cleared my throat and was about to speak when he put his finger to his lips, making that ‘shushing’ sign and said, “Son, I’m just leaving now and would rather not be bothered…”
I cut him off and said, “Mr. Douglas. I just came over to thank you. Thank you, for Spartacus, Lust for Life, Lonely are the Brave, Paths of Glory….”
He looked at me while I babbled as he tried to read my face. An eternity later, he jutted out his hand and said, “You know what? Thank you, young man. We in the industry don’t hear that enough from our fans. I want you to know that I appreciate it.”
It was a moment that for obvious reasons I’ll never forget. Incidentally, a few seconds later, I watched Ty down his drink and do the same thing before Kirk Douglas beat his hasty retreat.
And now, now that he’s made it to the one hundred year mark, I say again, thank you Kirk Douglas. And here’s to a hundred more!
Did I ever mention the time I met Burt Lancaster? Ahh, perhaps another blog entry….